Lamar Stevens (11) and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree go head-to-head in Neumann-Goretti's win over Roman Catholic in January. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
It is quite possible that the best game of the Pennsylvania high school basketball season is upon us.
Certainly the most-anticipated.
In front of what's sure to be one of the loudest crowds around all year, only one Philadelphia Catholic League boys’ basketball team will be cutting down the nets of the Palestra on Monday night.
All eyes will be trained on the Cahillites of Roman Catholic as they look to defend their title versus the very team they took the crown from, the Neumann-Goretti Saints.
“I’m looking forward to it a lot,” Roman senior Tony Carr said. “It’s going to be a great game, great atmosphere, just like it always is.”
Carr and his Cahillites, fresh off a season in which they broke the Saints streak of six consecutive PCL titles, will look to start a streak of their own.
In a match for redemption, these two teams met on January 6 at Neumann-Goretti. The game would not live up to the expected close battle, as Neumann-Goretti triumphed 85-68 in a packed South Philly gymnasium.
It's a game nobody on Roman has forgotten.
“I felt that they were hungrier than us,” Roman head coach Chris McNesby said. “They played a little bit of revenge off of the previous year. Coming into the season, there was a lot of hype about us, you know expected to win. You always have that target on your back. They had their shot, and they were at home. They were hungry and it showed.”
Roman was not completely healthy in that game, either. Big man Paul Newman, the teams’ starting 6-foot-7 senior center, missed the match with concussion related issues, but has returned to the team and should play a huge factor in Monday’s rematch.
“Paul is an experienced guy that has been in the league for a while and knows the deal,” McNesby said. “It is nice for us to have some depth. Last time we didn't have as much, but for Paul to hopefully be able to neutralize Roundtree, which is hard to do, but Paul is a big body that takes up some space blocks things up a bit and people have to account for that. So it is nice for us to have.”
With a healthy roster and a veteran group led by a Big Ten-bound trio, it would be silly to count Roman out.
The Cahillites are a proven entity and know what it takes to win. They certainly have the talent to do so and an added sense of motivation as well.
“I just feel like my biggest motivational factor is going back-to-back,” Carr said.” I feel like this is a prestigious league, the Catholic League, and just winning one championship is good but just having the chance to go back-to-back is huge for us.”
The 6-foot-4 Carr has always thrived on the big stage, as if he looks for that moment. When that moment does come, it is Carr who wants the ball in his hands, and Carr who usually delivers.
“I have always said Tony is a gamer,” McNesby said. “In big games kinda rises. It has always been in key crucial moments...He always has that ability to kinda understand when his team needs a bucket, when his team needs for him to be aggressive. I think that is just him being a winner and having that sense of when he needs to go.”
Carr finished with 24 points in a semifinal victory over Archbishop Carroll, the only other Catholic League team to defeat the Cahillites this season. One of three Penn State commits that form the Roman “Big Three,” Carr is joined by Nazeer Bostick and Lamar Stevens, who chimed in 14 and 13 points of their own.
On the flip side, Neumann-Goretti is anchored by the junior duo of guard Quade Green and forward Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree. The 6-foot Green averages 17.2 ppg which is fourth overall in the Catholic League, while the 6-foot-9 Cosby-Roundtree chimes in 13.2 ppg and routinely finishes with 10-plus rebounds.
Zane Martin (above) was a reserve guard when Neumann-Goretti last won the PCL championship, in 2014. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
In addition to those two high-major targets, senior Zane Martin has had a tremendous season. The 6-foot-3 Towson commit finished second overall in the Catholic League with 18 ppg and has to be eager at the opportunity to get the Saints back to their usual way at winning PCL crowns.
“Yeah we can’t wait,” Martin said. “You always have to leave with a bang...I tell them [the younger players] to keep focused in practice, so we can push ourselves for the game.”
The final two players in the Saints starting group are both senior guards, Rasheed Browne and Vaughn Covington. Browne averaged 11.5 ppg and has offers to Morgan State and Florida Gulf Coast, while Covington netted 10.5 ppg and has an offer to VMI.
While shutting down Martin and co. will be no small task, if any team in Philadelphia and perhaps the state is capable of it, it will be Roman Catholic.
“I think they’re difficult to guard because they have four guards that are pretty much interchangeable,” Carr said. ”And they have a very demonstrative center in Da-Da [Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree] who protects the paint for them and he finishes their lobs, so they pretty much cover all the bases on the offensive end.”
With the stage all set, one thing is left to do. If you find yourself free on a warm monday night in February, make your way to the Palestra for the 8:45 p.m. tip. Just make sure you get there early, because come game time, there shouldn't be an empty seat.
Verlin: I would be shocked if this game is anywhere close to a blowout, despite what Neumann-Goretti did earlier in the year. Both of these teams, despite their rosters filled with Division I talent, have found a way to carry chips on their respective shoulders into the Palestra: Roman because of the beating the Cahillites took in January, and Neumann due to the championship game loss a year ago. Both teams have tremendous point guards in future high-major stars Quade Green and Tony Carr (Penn State) and they’ve both shown a propensity to step up on the biggest of stages. Roman’s biggest weapon this season has been Lamar Stevens, whose muscular 6-foot-6 frame makes him a matchup nightmare at the high school level, but N-G has athletes like Zane Martin and Mike Millsip who can neutralize his physicality. Ultimately, I think the presence of Cosby-Roundtree will be the difference-maker as Neumann wins its seventh Catholic League championship in eight years. For Roman to pull the upset, the Cahillites will need sixth man Dakquan Davis as well as Carr and Stevens to hit the jump shots that Neumann's been burying all season long.
Minkoff: Grab your popcorn and settle in, because this will be nothing short than a true heavyweight title fight. Both of these teams are loaded with Division I talent, and it should be on full display on Monday night. In perhaps the greatest atmosphere of the high school basketball season, this game will do more than just drive ticket sales. It should be a back-and-forth bout with guards Tony Carr and Quade Green dishing dimes left-and-right. Ultimately I think that this game will come down to the paint-game. For Roman, Paul Newman is good, as is Lamar Stevens, but Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree has polished his game so much in his junior campaign that Monday night could be a coronation of that hard work. If Neumann is to win though, they will need to get out to a lead early and maintain it. If the Saints allow Roman to stick around, even lead late, Roman could be able to use the experienced trio of Carr/Stevens/Bostick to bring the crown back to the Broad and Vine campus. Look early on for how Quade Green plays on this stage. The megastar junior finished with 21 points in last season’s title game loss, and he's proved that he is not afraid of the big stage. If Green gets hot early, it will spell trouble for Roman. It is going to be a close game, but at the end of the day I do think that Neumann-Goretti will bring the trophy back to South Philly.